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Gus Johnson and America’s Relationship Nightmare: No One is Good Enough to be the Voice of American Soccer

Is it possible you wouldn’t know an authentic American soccer voice if it hit you in the face with the sweet, super-sized sound of freedom and fireworks?

As you’ve already heard, SI’s Richard Deitsch reported that Fox is grooming American play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson, primarily a basketball man, as the voice of the 2018 World Cup. Johnson’s first major gig was yesterday’s under-the-radar UEFA Champions League tie between European minnows Manchester United and Real Madrid.

After several years of major U.S. networks announcing the addition of non-American voices to the soccer booth, Fox’s decision to position Johnson to join the lovely and talented Arlo White, Ian Darke and Martin Tyler in the let’s-talk-about-soccer-on-American-TVs ranks should be welcomed with USA! chants and a Harlem Shake video, right?

Well, for some, not exactly.

American soccer fans are never short of opinions when it comes to Americans calling games. But rarely is there a consensus on the quality of the spoken product. For every American Europhile who can’t bear to hear the sound of an American calling a football match, there’s a competing voice that craves an authentic American crooning about throw-ins and pitch invasions on obscenely large flat-screen TVs as s/he sips on the finest, mediocre European beer. It’s a bifurcated reality layered with national pride, cultural appropriation, and identity confusion.

***

(At an American football/soccer pub/bar)

American Europhile: Ugh, I can’t stand to listen to any of these American announcers. Give me Ian Darke any day. The British do it so much better.

Pro-America: Well, bro, move to Europe.

Bartender: What can I getcha?

American Europhile: Bud Light.

Pro-America: Do you have Magners on draft?

***

While there’s little agreement on finished products, the development of authentic American soccer voices is a good thing. But even if we can agree on that, after over a decade of regular soccer programming in America, is it possible that significant swaths of Americans would reject a perfectly viable voice of American soccer on reflex if it was presented on a polished silver platter?

*nods*

Generally, American soccer fans recognize the quality of the Andres Cantors, Tylers and Darkes. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to have a conversation about the quality of American announcers without these names circulating through the discussion like a chorus. And that’s one of the root causes of America’s national trauma: these foreign voices, at least subconsciously, serve as America’s measuring sticks.

But times have changed. Now America wants its own broadcasting icon, an authentic American voice cranking out witty refrains and catch phrases until YouTube is saturated with approval.

Enter Gus Johnson.

Gus Johnson is an authentic American from Detroit, an authentic American city responsible for creating Motown, Cadillacs and Cobi Jones. But for some, even though Gus is American (unless Donald Trump can produce a Kenyan birth certificate suggesting otherwise), he still isn’t authentic enough for the job because he isn’t a soccer guy. Gus started learning about the game at the ripe old age of 40-something.

That’s not to suggest he’s bad at calling games; rather, he just doesn’t know the game as well as someone who grew up loving the game, which means he faces a steep learning curve and an army of naysayers who will challenge his pedigree at every turn. He’ll need extra tutoring after school since his soccer test scores aren’t the greatest. He’ll exist under a microscope for the egregious crime of having honed his craft in games that include jumpers, buzzer beaters, time-outs, and Bill Raftery. He’ll have to fend off criticism that he was given an opportunity that could have gone to seasoned veterans already in the game. From the outset, there’s no shortage of obstacles standing between Gus Johnson and success.

Yet much of the criticism surrounding the Gus announcement is rooted in Gus being an outsider. He isn’t one of us. And in a game that fixates on DNA, it’s clear that the game isn’t in his genetic make-up. So we ask if he’ll be able to pronounce names correctly, as if that’s a skill more seasoned announcers have mastered. We ask if he’ll be able to distinguish between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1, as if lifetime fans are adept at accurately assessing formations during the run of play. We ask every question that will validate the “Gus has alien blood” narrative even though we’re all well aware of his origins. But while a lack of soccer DNA probably rules Gus out of a few things, like making a late run at being in Klinsmann’s next 23-man squad, it isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to his career as a soccer play-by-play announcer.

John Harkes, the former St. Benedict’s (New Jersey), University of Virginia, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, and D.C. United player has pristine soccer DNA, and it’s American, too. Nevertheless, a common reaction to Harkes’ national TV performances is, “Well, he’s not good enough because he’s, well, John Harkes.” Never mind that Harkes has had some very astute moments as a color commentator, displaying his robust experience and knowledge of the game while breaking down play, albeit amidst the occasional shaky moment.

In between Gus and Harkes is a spectrum of American talent that has taken a stab at the announcing game — from the veterans JP Dellacamera and Phil Schoen, to Marcelo Balboa, Taylor Twellman, Kyle Martino and Brian Dunseth, among others — all with varying degrees of success and acceptance from the American soccer public. Yet somehow there always seems to be something wrong. They are too American or not knowledgeable enough or say offsides instead of offside or too dry or too opinionated or just vaguely not good enough based on equally vague metrics.

It turns out, few have Americans have been “authentic” enough to broadly satisfy the hoards of demanding fans at the national broadcast level, whether they are play-by-play announcers or color commentators.

The truth of the matter is the more you start peeling away the “authentic voice of American soccer” layers, the more it becomes clear that, in practice, the tag is simply a way of institutionalizing exclusion and expressing disapproval based on something that sounds concrete and legitimate, but, in reality, is a vague, meaningless description that offers minimal guidance. The quest for authenticity, it turns out, is just as convoluted in American soccer broadcasting as it is in the rest of American society.

That’s why you will struggle to find concrete examples or a workable definition of “authentic Americanness,” because there is no workable definition. It hasn’t been defined yet. There is no pre-existing model for the authentically American iconic soccer voice. And perhaps it doesn’t exist yet because of an inability or unwillingness to give voices the time and space to develop.

In the interim, between the shouts of disapproval, we poke holes in the contenders without ever coming up with concrete alternatives, or patience, or a formula to create an alternative. We want the perfect American solution today but don’t seem willing to invest in long-term solutions that might involve short-term pain, because we want a winner yesterday. So networks continue to invest in foreign assets because the American soccer viewing public has shown, time and time again, an unwillingness to watch on-the-job training.

Gus Johnson is a concrete solution. Is he perfect? I don’t know. Gus himself says he’s a novice. But could he develop into a competent or even more than competent voice of American soccer? Sure. Why not? And what’s the harm in allowing him to try?

We already know that predicting success in the American soccer booth has proven to be a challenge; we know that America’s most revered play-by-play announcers excel at their jobs because of the passion behind their delivery and what sounds like an emotional attachment to the game; and we know ex-pros have struggled on the charisma front, as many seem to approach new broadcasting careers with the measured faux-enthusiasm of an always-replaceable meteorologist (which makes sense, because they haven’t been career broadcasters). There just hasn’t been a magic bullet yet.

So we’re left with this conundrum: do we wait for a higher power to magically create the authentic voice of American soccer during a spell of boredom, or do we proactively teach a willing, charismatic voice enough about the game to be informative and credible?

As fans of the U.S. men’s national team know, while you’re waiting to arrive, you can only work with what you have. And what we have in Gus Johnson is a man who has spent a career developing a unique delivery and mastering the art of enthusiasm. Those are valuable commodities and integral components of what makes the Cantors, Tylers and Darkes so special. The live, off-the-cuff analytical breakdowns can be handled by color commentators; it’s the ability to package cadence, flair, and colorful descriptions of special moments into memorable octaves that stand the test of time.

Soccer vocabulary isn’t rocket science. Neither is the game. But it does take time to become fluent. Already armed with a robust set of broadcasting skills, the only relevant question for Gus is if he is willing to put in the work; and the only relevant question for the rest of us is if we have the ability to be patient. Given America’s short roster of experienced play-by-play voices, it’s probably a worthwhile experiment, regardless of whether the final product is ultimately acceptable to the demanding American public.

(Gus Johnson’s arbitrary grade for the Manchester United-Real Madrid call: B.)

Image credit: @robokoboto

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  • Ted Smith III

    I have listened to Gus for a long time on college basketball, college football and NFL games. He is a great play-by-play announcer. I am willing to give him a try in soccer. I think he’ll do great. Like you said, the sport isn’t rocket science. I think by the time 2018 rolls around, we’ll have ourselves a great announcer. Would be great if FOX can get Ray Hudson to work with him. That would be one heck of a combination!